Fort Collins--They're tiny, toothy, terrifying and teem in unbelievable profusion beneath your feet, but instead of things that go bump in the dark at Halloween, these creatures may well be the key to healthy ecosystems in the everyday world and in the subsurface one.
A Colorado State University project, undertaken in collaboration with scientists in the United Kingdom, will attempt to catalogue and analyze below-ground organisms, see how they interact and determine how this affects the health of both soil and surface ecosystems, answering the questions of how human activities above-ground influence biodiversity below ground and what the consequences are of that change in biodiversity?
"I think the most exciting thing for us is to find out how life in soil is important in ecosystems," said Diana Wall, head of the U.S. effort and director of Colorado State's Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. "For example, we know more about earthworms because they're relatively big and visible. But we don't know if some are more important than others below ground. If we could find that out, it would be dynamite."
Scientific enthusiasm aside, there's also a practical reason for carrying out the experiments, which are funded by a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
"In order to maintain the planet sustainably, we need to know whether individual species in soils are critical to important things such as soil fertility, water quality, soil erosion, maintaining plant diversity and cleaning the atmosphere," Wall said. "How can we have a sustainable planet when billions of soil species and their importance remain unknown?
"Our project takes grasslands that are known to have great soil diversity and tries to discover the importance of these unknown species to our lives and our future."